Foss: Long wait times for COVID-19 test results persist

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Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

Darla Gullotta waited 10 days for her COVID-19 test results. 

During that time, she quarantined, as did her husband. 

Her mother, who spent time with her during the period when she might have been infectious, canceled a surgical procedure. And while Gullotta was able to work from home, her husband, who is employed by a local highway department, was not.  

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In the end, Gullotta and her husband received good news — they both tested negative for the virus. 

That didn’t make the long wait any less inconvenient.  

“Everything else has to remain on hold [while you wait],” Gullotta, of Schenectady, told me. “It just seems there’s no consistent place where people can reliably go to have a quick turnaround for a COVID test.” 

Unlike the early days of the pandemic, it’s become very easy to get a COVID test in New York, with tens of thousands of people getting tested every single day.

What isn’t so easy is waiting for test results — an unpredictable and increasingly lengthy process. 

The great promise of widespread coronavirus testing was that it would enable us to quickly identify and isolate those carrying the virus and trace their contacts, while those who tested negative would be able to resume their daily routines with minimal disruption. Society could function somewhat normally, with a small number of people quarantining and everyone else living mostly normal lives. 

At least, that was the idea. 

The reality is that wait times have gotten longer for New Yorkers in recent weeks, the result of an increased demand for tests across the country.

Other states are experiencing a surge in infections, causing a backlog in tests at the labs that process them and delaying results in even in states that have their outbreaks under control. 

These delays are occurring at a most inopportune time, as schools, colleges and other workplaces and institutions prepare to reopen. An efficient testing system is critical to containing outbreaks, and the U.S. doesn’t have one.

It’s a huge failure — one that ought to be a national scandal. 

A long wait for test results can turn your life upside down, even if you don’t have coronavirus. 

Gullotta got tested in mid-July at one of Schenectady County’s community testing sites, after coming down with a fever upon returning home from a trip to the Adirondacks. She did what health experts advise and quarantined while waiting for her results, thus ensuring that she wouldn’t infect anyone if she did have the virus. 

“I try to be responsible,” she said. 

Sadly, being responsible can also be a hardship. 

A recent Wall Street Journal article observed that long waits for coronavirus test results can translate to weeks without steady income. 

“For many people, particularly essential workers who can’t do their jobs from home, longer waits can mean time without pay while they wait to be allowed back to work,” the article stated. “Others have been forced to use vacation time.” 

People who don’t self-isolate while waiting for test results risk spreading the disease, as a July article from Syracuse.com about an outbreak at a daycare in DeWitt makes clear. 

The outbreak started with a parent who sent her child to daycare while waiting for test results. Both parent and child eventually tested positive for the disease, sickening at least 16 people connected with the facility.

In early July, I got a glimpse of what an efficient testing system looks like. 

I got tested at the University at Albany, and received my results within 48 hours.

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The quick turnaround made it possible for me to go to Maine on vacation and see my family, and I assumed the kinks in testing had been resolved. But that wasn’t the case at all. 

When I asked friends and acquaintances on social media how long it had taken for test results to come back, I was both surprised and appalled by the variability in wait times. 

One friend told me her daughter in New York City had been waiting nine days for results; another New Yorker told me she had waited just one day. Rabbi Matthew Cutler, at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, joked that he wasn’t sure “what’s coming first: my COVID results or the Messiah,” while a friend in Central New York informed me that “around here it has been taking nine to 14 days.” 

County officials confirmed that it’s taking longer to get test results. 

“Wait times for the county’s community testing have varied a lot but can easily be more than a week,” Erin Roberts, a spokeswoman for Schenectady County, said, noting that the massive increase in testing nationally, combined with the processing of tests out-of-state, are causing the slowdown. 

Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko told me that she’s seeing a five to seven day wait for test results. 

“There have been times we waited nine days,” she said. “Slower times started just after the 4th of July holiday, but have not gotten better. We also saw an increase in wait times after the mandatory testing for nursing home staff was implemented.” 

Five months into a global pandemic, our testing infrastructure ought to be running like a well-oiled machine.

Instead, the opposite appears to be happening. 

“America’s testing infrastructure is collapsing,” Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, warned in an op-ed article in Time magazine.

Testing ought to be fast, reliable and easy to access. 

That it isn’t is simply unacceptable.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

 

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